The origins of the Board of Ordnance are generally associated with the 14th century development of the Wardrobe of Arms into the Privy Wardrobe of the Tower, a department specialising in the provisions of arms and warlike stores. Master Nicholas Merbury, appointed in 1414, is the first known Master of the Ordnance. The post was a replacement for the virtually defunct Keepership of the Privy Wardrobe. During the 15th century the status of the Master rose steadily, and from 1483 all holders of the office were knights or peers. The first major re-organisation came in 1543, when Henry VIII created the subordinate officers (Lieutenant, Storekeeper, Surveyor and Clerk of Deliveries) to assist the Master. As yet, all these officers held their posts by individual letters patent, and not until 1597 were they actually constituted as a Board. Two elements were already present which were to characterise the Board. Firstly, it was concerned with all "ordnance, emption and munition", not solely with heavy guns: indeed, its early development preceded the introduction of firearms. Though, in time, heavy guns came to be the most important of the Ordnance's responsibilities, they were only a part of the weapons, ammunition and stores which the Ordnance provided for fighting forces. At a time when both land and sea forces could be assembled ad hoc to meet any emergency, only the provision of arms required a standing organisation with permanent stores. In fact, the Ordnance Office may be regarded as the first permanent military department in England.
The Board continued during the seventeenth century and in 1683 assumed the form which it was to preserve, largely unaltered, into the 19th century. The Master-General, or in his absence the Lieutenant-General, was to preside over a Board consisting of himself and the four Principal Officers. The establishment of the department was divided into Civil and Military. The former included the members of the Board itself, together with its clerks and other employees who formed the staff of the Ordnance Office in the Tower, which was the headquarters and principal magazine. The Military Establishment consisted originally of the Master-Gunner of England and his subordinates the fee'd (that is, salaried) gunners, who formed the only permanent garrison of forts and castles, together with a few civilian engineers (who designed and constructed fortifications and other works), a Firemaster and Fireworkers (who conducted experiments with explosives) and a Proof-Master (who did the like with guns). The Board's responsibilities were divided into Sea and Land Service. The Sea Service, which was initially by far the larger, included the issue of all guns and warlike stores not only to ships but also to forts, whose guns and gunners were more or less interchangeable with those at sea. The Land Service comprised the issue of small arms to whatever military forces were raised, and also the provision of waggons, tents and the like to the Army and the Royal Household. The reforms of 1683, however, entrusted the Board with the provision of artillery and engineer trains, if required. As there was virtually no field army at that date, this was an insignificant addition to the liabilities of the Office, but the great expansion of the Army during William III?s reign, and the frequent wars of the 18th century, gave rise to large standing corps of Artillery and Engineers. The Board was now responsible for thousands of officers and men, and intimately involved in field operations in many parts of the world.
This naturally changed the character of the Ordnance. The Civil Establishment, which had once included all the Office and still included all the Principal Officers, came to be eclipsed by the Military. Military engineers succeeded to the posts formerly held by civilians; military officers ran the Board's numerous and important establishments, such as the Royal Arsenal, Royal Academy and Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, and the powder mills at Faversham and Waltham Abbey.
The Ordnance Board, therefore, entered the 19th century increasingly dominated by army officers. With the end of the Great War in 1815 the process continued. Even the Principal Offices (of which the Lieutenant-Generalship and the Clerkship of Deliveries were abolished in 1833), hitherto always held by civilians, passed to soldiers. The Board came to present the appearance of a second war department. In 1855 the Board of Ordnance was abolished and its duties merged with those of the War Office. With that, control of the Navy's guns passed to the army, engendering a protracted and bitter departmental feud. Besides the principal responsibilities entrusted by Charles II to the Board (that is, the provisions of arms and ammunitions, the building and upkeep of fortifications and barracks, the Engineers and the Artillery), the Board acquired other responsibilities. The Firemaster and Fireworkers supplied fireworks for royal entertainments, the Yeoman of Tents and Toyls and the Waggonmaster likewise supplied the royal household, and the Astronomer Royal was borne on the Ordnance books. These and other diverse activities are reflected in the Board's records.